Interim Superintendent Emerges as Top Candidate to Lead Prince George's School System

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009

The interim superintendent of the Prince George's County schools is emerging as the top candidate to become the next leader of the region's third-largest school system.

The Board of Education interviewed William R. Hite Jr. last night, and a majority of members signaled in interviews this week that he is in a strong position to get the job.

Supporters said choosing Hite would help bring an end to years of leadership turnover. Hite, who has been running the 128,000-student system since December, is the only declared candidate.

"If he meets the criteria and has a long-range plan, as far as I'm concerned, the search process is over," board Vice Chairman Ron Watson (At Large) said.

Community meetings showed that residents want a superintendent who will stay awhile, board members said. "I think what we heard loud and clear is that our system really needs to have stability in leadership and someone who is committed to the county long term," Heather Iliff (District 2) said. She said Hite has "shown he has both the leadership and the management qualities that the system needs."

The school system has faced a lot of turbulence. Prince George's, the wealthiest majority-black county in the country, is notable not only for its diversity but also its stark divisions between suburban affluence and poverty concentrated inside the Capital Beltway. In 2006, the school system was placed in "corrective action" by the Maryland State Department of Education after years of poor academic performance.

That year, many observers thought the school board had hired a long-term superintendent in John E. Deasy. But he left for a job with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last fall, little more than halfway through a four-year contract. He was preceded by acting schools chief Howard Burnett, who ran the system for a year after the resignation of Andre J. Hornsby, who was convicted in July on public corruption charges. Hornsby, in turn, had run the system for two years after the tumultuous four-year tenure of Iris T. Metts, who declined to seek a renewal of her contract after a series of quarrels with the school board.

Such turnover sets Prince George's apart in the Washington area's suburbs. Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has led the region's second-largest school system since 1999, and Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale has led the largest system since 2004.

The Prince George's school board has been in flux, too. State lawmakers dissolved the elected board in 2002 after the battles with Metts, replacing it with an appointed board. Then a board was elected in 2006. More change will come next year as all nine members are elected by district. Now, four hold at-large seats.

In the past few years, change has become the norm. Plans have been drawn up for new headquarters and a new administrative organization. Attendance boundaries for dozens of schools are being redrawn, and many have new principals. Board members have said they want to tighten oversight of programs that seem to them to come and go with little accountability.

"It's unfair to all of us," said board member Linda Thornton Thomas (District 4). "Money is wasted, and it's very disturbing to the teachers. Parents are confused. They don't know one acronym from the next."

Choosing Hite could be a sign the board wants to continue on the path Deasy began. Hite, a Richmond native who came to Prince George's shortly after Deasy was hired, so eye to eye with him on academic policy so often that he was sometimes described as his twin.

But Hite has his own style. Where Deasy was flashy and sometimes gave an impression of impatience with the board, Hite speaks slowly and deliberately. His austere $1.6 billion budget proposal passed the school board largely unaltered, and he hasn't been flustered by sometimes-hostile crowds of parents upset about a plan to close a dozen schools.

Board members Rosalind Johnson (District 1), Pat Fletcher (District 3), Donna Hathaway Beck (At Large), Watson and Iliff characterized Hite as a strong candidate.

"I think he's in an excellent position because he was here, and he worked through the entire tenure of Dr. Deasy," Johnson said. "I think that gives him great advantage. He knows how to work with this board. He knows what all our foibles are."

None of the other members -- Thomas, Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large), R. Owen Johnson Jr. (District 5) and Amber Waller (At Large) -- criticized Hite. Jacobs said of him: "I think it takes time for someone to find their own way. I think he's trying to meet the needs of kids. He's very sincere."

Hite said he is confident in his abilities, although he wished he had more time to talk about teaching and learning rather than budget cuts. Asked how long he would stay if hired, Hite said, "I'll stay here as long as the board'll have me."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company